Apologies in advance, because a fair amount of this column isn’t going to make much sense to anyone who isn’t familiar with this game or its predecessor. And even though I’ve already spent a decent amount of time with EA UFC 2 (including two EA Access trial periods, a full trip through career mode and a couple of hundred online matches) I’m treating this as my first impressions rather than a review. It wouldn’t make sense to do it any other way. I logged over 300 hours into the first game, and by the end, after several substantial free updates, it had been so finely-tuned on a mechanical level that it felt like a completely different game. I expect the sequel to receive similar treatment; I hope so, anyway, because despite all the positive things I have to say about it, there’s some stuff that absolutely must be fixed for the game to be sustainable in the long-term. Still, I’ll get to that.
Broadly, though, EA UFC 2 is an excellent sequel. It’s improved in all the right areas, the old features have been expanded and developed, and the new additions are interesting and sensible. The roster is huge, it looks sensational, the attention to detail is astounding, and it’s by far the most in-depth and faithful representation of MMA I’ve ever played. If you liked the first one, you’ll definitely like this. Consider that your recommendation.
This is where I’ll probably start to lose people, because most of what I find interesting about UFC 2 is stuff that isn’t going to make much sense to anyone who hasn’t played it or doesn’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of the sport. But the biggest change I’ve noticed is a general sense of weight and significance to everything you do, but particularly jabs and straights, leg kicks, and strikes from clinch positions outside of the Thai plum. In the previous game quick punches felt like hits in Street Fighter; now they carry a pleasing amount of heft, and rangier fighters can use them as a legitimate attack strategy rather than just a tool for setting up bigger shots. Leg kicks were treated more fairly before, but they’re improved too. It takes fewer of them to deal big damage, and that damage has a noticeable impact on a fighter’s ability to move and throw kicks. Again, they’re a viable approach rather than just something you can do.
The clinch is a little more complicated, and I’ll be talking about it more later when I get to what I feel needs to be fixed. But in fairness the issue is less with the clinch itself and more with another feature, which, again, I’ll get to soon. Most of the changes that have been made in this area I generally approve of. There are more options now, including several new trips and takedowns and the very welcome addition of flying submissions, but most importantly strikes from all positions feel significant now in a way they absolutely didn’t before. Players who favour Greco-Roman wrestlers now have much more scope for grappling, especially against the cage, and it’s refreshing to see close-range fighting that isn’t purely ground-and-pound.
Much of the stand-up fighting remains relatively unchanged, but the biggest alteration (perhaps in the entire game in terms of how it affects the pace of fights) has been made to the way blocking works. Whereas previously one button was responsible for blocking all strikes, with specific face buttons being used for parries, there are now two buttons which are used for blocking high and low strikes, respectively. This is an excellent change, for two reasons: it encourages people to diversify their attacks, and it prevents players from standing in place and continuously blocking while they wait for a takedown or counter opportunity. This change is reinforced by the damage system now weakening a fighter’s arms, meaning that they’re unable to block multiple strikes in succession without eventually dropping their guard. It’s difficult to express how much this alters the pace and verisimilitude of stand-up fighting for the better, and it would be incredibly difficult to return to the previous game now because of this alone.
Elsewhere, the grappling system is perhaps the most noticeably different aspect of the game. It’s still controlled using the right stick, but now, instead of quarter-circle movements, transitions are performed by holding either up, down, left or right, and a visual cue shows you exactly what each direction will do. This is another thing that I’ll eventually complain about, but broadly it’s an improvement, allowing for much simpler inputs but ultimately a more complex and nuanced overall system. Submissions work the same way they did before, which is fine, but where you can initiate them from is much clearer now, allowing players to better understand their options on the ground (which is a place that many, many players still don’t understand).
There’s another benefit here, which is differentiating between various fighters and styles; locating where your advantages and disadvantages are. Wrestlers tend to have more takedown options and alternate transitions, for example, while jiu jitsu practitioners unsurprisingly have more submission options, and judokas greater maneuverability in the clinch. This was always the case, although perhaps to a lesser extent, but being able to see visual representations of what’s possible and what isn’t makes the whole thing much more palatable. This isn’t the same thing as dumbing the gameplay down, by the way. With such a huge roster it’s a vital part of quickly learning who can do what, and where they can do it.
I do see the nitpick train coming into the station though, and seeing as we’re already talking about grappling we may as well start there. So, holding a particular direction to perform a given action is perfectly fine in theory, but in practice it takes a little too long. This is fine if you’re playing as, say, Daniel Cormier, but if you’re not you can find yourself in a world of trouble – including some situations I honestly don’t think it’s possible to escape from. And to be clear, this is not a case of me misunderstanding how the controls or the mechanics work, and I’m totally okay with fighters who are proficient on the ground being able to smother those who aren’t. But because the length of time it takes to perform a transition is governed by not only a fighter’s stats but also their stamina, it is possible to be unable to perform a transition without taking shots. Again, fine in theory. But taking shots also resets the progress of your transition, meaning that you literally cannot escape from certain positions if you’re trapped beneath someone with superior ground stats. Proper stamina management does play a role in this, but less so than you might imagine. If you happen to be playing as Stephen Thompson, for instance, and you get mounted by Johny Hendricks, even with a reasonable amount of stamina you’re still well and truly fucked. This isn’t quite a dealbreaker – it requires a very specific set of circumstances, and you can avoid it more often than not. But it’s undeniably an issue with the new system, and it could be addressed fairly easily.
Of more immediate concern is the Thai clinch, which is currently rendering the game’s online modes borderline unplayable. A quick primer for the unfamiliar: from the Thai plum position, players can throw knees and elbows to the head or body. They do an incredible amount of damage, as well they should, and it only takes a couple to render an opponent unconscious. The current issue is that for reasons utterly unknown to me, elbows and knees to the head are treated as high and low strikes, respectively, even though they both target the same area. What this means in gameplay terms is that a player with half a brain cell can alternate between the two and generally knock out any opponent, regardless of stats or stamina. It’s a huge issue and it could be fixed so easily by having the same button block both strikes (which is how it already works everywhere else). Again, to be clear, I don’t think strikes from this position are “overpowered”, as I’ve seen a lot of people claim, but the blocking issue makes it seem that way. It’s a huge oversight, and you can tell by how many people resort to constantly utilizing the clinch. In the previous game I could go literally hundreds of matches without seeing anyone touch it. In my last 40 matches on EA UFC 2, 36 of my opponents have at the very least attempted it. And yes, I counted.
These issues, aside from just being generally irritating, have a knock-on effect for the overall online landscape. In Ranked Divisions, which is the game’s primary competitive mode, it’s very rare that you’re going to be fighting anyone other than the very best athletes in the game – Jon Jones, GSP, Conor McGregor. The statistical advantages you gain (or lose) on the ground are too severe to be ignored for most players, and so the only option is to compensate for it with highly-rated fighters. Couple this with everyone’s propensity to clinch, and you have a potentially wonderful online mode sullied by underhand tactics and currently unavoidable loopholes.
Even Ultimate Team, the game’s most intriguing new feature, is tainted somewhat by the sheer volume of clinch-happy Muay Thai fighters. It’s a shame, really, as the other styles of fighting feel so well-balanced that the potential for excellent, realistic matches is always there. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had several myself. But being able to exploit something also has the unfortunate consequence of convincing players they don’t need to learn how the rest of the game works. I made a jiu jitsu fighter on Ultimate Team, as an experiment more than anything, and I won his first 20 fights via first-round submission. Nobody had a clue what was going on. And, really, that’s the biggest travesty of all. There’s no point in having the most comprehensive ground-fighting system in the medium’s history if nobody knows how to use it.
Still, this stuff only applies to the game’s online modes, and even then only in the higher Divisions. If you’re interested in checking out Career mode, the new striking-only Knockouts mode, or just generally having fun battering the game’s AI, then fill your boots. You’ll have a great time. While you’re at it, learn the ground game. Because when EA inevitably patches the issues inherent in the new mechanics and you can’t spam the clinch all day long, you’re going to be in trouble when you run into me. I’m out for vengeance, you pricks.